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No Support For Peer Support

Vancouver Coastal Health terminates funding for grassroots mental health network

by Ron Carten

Vancouver's only peer support network for mental health will be "volunteer run" as of December. Illustration by Zoran Gotsii, courtesy of The Networker
Vancouver's only peer support network for mental health will be "volunteer run" as of December. Illustration by Zoran Gotsii, courtesy of The Networker

Also posted by nat marshik:

VANCOUVER—Grassroots initiatives for people diagnosed with a mental illness are considered essential by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Yet Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has terminated the contract of the West Coast Mental Health Network, one of the few peer-run mental health organizations in British Columbia.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, founded in 2007 as a national advisory body, laid out recommendations for action on mental health in its 2012 report “Changing Directions, Changing Lives.” Among the recommendations was a call to “increase appropriately-resourced peer support initiatives in both independent, peer-run agencies and mainstream settings.”

For over twenty years, the Vancouver-based West Coast Mental Health Network, known as “the Network” to its members, has been providing peer support to people who have been through the psychiatric system. During that time, it has run close to a dozen ongoing support groups facilitated solely by others who have been psychiatrized. It also organizes community events and publishes a quarterly journal, The Networker, featuring the art and writing of individuals diagnosed with a mental illness, and providing small honorariums for their efforts.

Donny Harrison came to the Network after attending a Network screening of the film “Crooked Beauty,” produced by Ken Paul Rosenthal. The film was shown at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, itself an active participant in the mental health movement in Vancouver

Harrison met with the Vancouver Media Co-op (VMC) at the Network office, currently housed rent-free within the office of ARA Mental Health in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He is a recent addition to the Network’s board of directors and described the Network as “people helping each other, with each other, for each other.”

“Getting involved with people that are in the same boat as you are, I think, can be very empowering, to feel like you now have solutions and empathy as opposed to isolation and fear,” he said.

Breaking through the isolation faced by many who have been hospitalized for a mental illness has been a core part of peer support. Many of the psychiatrized are not comfortable going to mainstream drop-in centres and related programs run by professional staff.

Paula Mines has been with the Network since its inception in the early 1990s. For at least a dozen years, she has been a facilitator of the Network’s Women’s group, its Arts and Crafts group and most recently the Network’s Cultural Arts group, which brings participants together for cultural events and for activities like creative writing.

“All the people you work with are peers,” she said. “All the people you deal with are peers. I’m not talking to a so-called professional who is going to judge me one way or the other or who will tell me I don’t belong.”

This is the core of peer support, which provides non-judgmental opportunities for socializing and sharing that just are not the same in mainstream, professionalized agencies.

Adrianne Fitch, the Network’s executive director, spoke with the VMC in her office at ARA.

“We represent two communities: [one is] consumers of the mental health system, who may have psychiatrists or mental health teams or be on meds and whatever works for them—whatever their journey is, they are consumers of the mental health system.

“The other population that we represent are survivors, people who have been possibly harmed by the mental health system, who have been involuntarily medicated or committed to a psych ward or psychiatric institution. So, the survivors are people who don’t have faith in the mental health system and don’t have any trust in it any more because of how they’ve been treated. And they deserve a voice as well.”

Fitch offered her narrative of the termination of the Network's contract.

“We heard, I think about a year before it happened, that every program was under review. I thought maybe our budget would be reduced, but we had no warning that they just decided to completely terminate our contract. We were called in to Vancouver Coastal Health on June 4th and were advised that as of December 1st our contract would be terminated.

“The reason that they gave us was that they had to focus on core services, that it had no bearing on the quality of our programming and that we’d been doing a good job, that they just had to focus on core health services.”

Vancouver Coastal Health’s media representative declined an interview request from the Vancouver Media Co-op, citing concerns about the journalist's position as board member of the Network.

Fitch referred the VMC to Vancouver Coastal Health's responses to letters of support written by Network members and allies. According to Fitch, the responses indicate some reasons for the funding cuts.

“One of those replies said that they wanted to put money into ACT Teams, which is Assertive Community Treatment, and could no longer fund my position [at the Network].”

Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) is a type of community-based, enforced psychiatric treatment, which typically involves administering medications to people in their own homes. If patients refuse their medications in the community, they may be sent back to hospital against their wishes.

While the Network has not taken a position on Assertive Community Treatment, Network board member Richard Ingram spoke in no uncertain terms. “I think that “assertive” is a word that hides the use of what is violence. It means that the system has coercion that it can use to oblige people to take medications in the community.”

Ingram was disturbed to see that, while several community groups have lost funding this year, “at the same time, VCH has increased the number of its ACT Teams from one to three.”

Peter Bazovsky, mental health advocate and program coordinator at ARA Mental Health, characterized the increased funding for ACT as “a state-of-emergency response. When you start to frame a notion within the context of an emergency or crisis, then the first thought that comes to mind is the establishment of some form of managing the crisis.”

He said the Network's approach contrasts sharply with ACT's management framework. “The reality is that West Coast Mental Health Network’s work is mostly in the area of crisis prevention. What you’re doing is building a social network, so that when people face life stressors they don’t have to face it by themselves. So, this is crisis prevention. It’s not crisis management.”

When asked about the impact of funding cuts to the Network, Fitch replied sadly, “It’s been a devastating impact. [The VCH contract] was 95% of our funding. So, obviously my job has become volunteer as of December 1st. … All the money we still have left is going to keeping our peer support groups running. … We’re trying to find alternate funding. But at this point the organization is very much in a crisis.”

Before the termination of their contract, the Network was pursuing changes to mental health legislation in the province, particularly to the Representation Agreement Act. The Act provides for substitute decision-makers when an individual is deemed unable to make health care decisions for themselves, which often happens upon committal to psychiatric facilities. The Network had also collaborated briefly on mental health legislation with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

The Network's history of grassroots research dates back to 1995 with its “Voices of Experience” report prepared by the Community Legal Assistance Society. In 2003, the Network participated in the Whole Woman Project, a therapy-of-choice program for women diagnosed with a mental illness. In 2005, it produced a report on a women’s psychiatric safe house entitled “What Women Want.”

Despite the Network's research initiatives, public events, and journal publishing, and despite the endorsement of peer support by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the termination of the Network’s contract was unforgiving.

Donny Harrison put it this way: “The cuts to the West Coast Mental Health Network mean that there is the possibility of no more network groups that meet together monthly. Those offer our members an outlet and a way to seek others feeling the same mental health issues, in a safe, nurturing environment.”

Paula Mines reflected that fewer people have been attending meet-ups and that many “keep asking me if we’re going to continue on. They’re sad and depressed about the Network closing. People that used to come on a regular basis just aren’t coming any more. They say, ‘Well if it’s ending I might as well not come anymore.’”

“I think that the managers at Vancouver Coastal Health did not really understand what we do,” Fitch concluded. “[They] didn’t really bother to learn much about the Network when they made that decision.”

But the Network is not going to collapse if Fitch and Harrison can help it. The organization is doubling its efforts to secure new grants to support its programming. “It’s a top priority for us to keep the groups running,” said Fitch, “because without those groups running all of the other projects that we’re proposing would not happen.”

Ron Carten is a consulting social worker who recently joined the Board of Directors of the West Coast Mental Health Network.

Learn more about the West Coast Mental Health Network at wcmhn.org, or download the latest issue of The Networker.

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